Humility: The Real Meaning Behind Christmas

Christ is Born! This week’s reflection comes to us from Fr. Joseph Abouid of St. George, El Paso, Texas, where this reflection was published in the El Paso Herald-Post. We thank Fr. Joseph for his wise words, which I hope will inspire you as they inspired me.  –Fr. Michael

When we think of the Christmas season, our imaginations conjure up a snowy evening, snowflakes falling, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and children filled with joy and excitement as they hope to receive a visit from “the jolly old man in a bright red suit.”

As the song says, this image is akin to “walking in a winter wonderland”. Nonetheless, an unexpected visitor did present himself during this special Christmas night. He did not wear a bright red suit; instead, he wore our human nature by taking on flesh. He was not a jolly old man, but rather a babe surrounded by an ox and a donkey in manger.

He did not bring along a sack with the latest toys and gifts; He is the greatest gift this world has ever received. His Nativity brought to us the gift of salvation.

To understand the meaning of Christmas, or Christ’s Nativity as we know it in the Orthodox Christian Church, we must set aside all that society feeds to our consumerist disillusions. We need to go back to the start.

We need to know about the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, and how it teaches us about one of the most important Christian virtues: humility.

Christ’s incarnation is the maximum exponent of humility. The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, when encouraging them to imitate Christ’s humility, the following words:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

The emptying of Christ’s self is known in the Church as kenosis. This word in its verb form kenóo literally means “to empty”. It is also understood by St. Gregory the Theologian (c.329-391) as a “pouring out” or “draining” of the second person of the Trinity into human nature.

Christ emptied himself into this world; He poured himself like one who lifts a pitcher of water and empties it while he pours the water into a cup. This act of self-emptying is a selfless act. It is a sign of true humbleness on behalf of He who chose to pour Himself into our fallen nature for our salvation.

The self-emptying of Christ is a recurrent theme in St. Gregory’s Christology.

The one who enriches becomes poor; he is made poor in my flesh, that I might be enriched through his divinity. The full one empties himself; for he empties himself of his own glory for a short time, that I may participate in his fullness. (Oration 38 13)

Also, St. Gregory explains the following in his treatise Three Poems: Concerning His Own Affairs, Concerning Himself and the Bishops, and Concerning His Own Life (see Alfeyev, pg. 263)

God descended from his heavenly throne, having emptied his glory into a mortal womb and having intermingled himself with mortality, and united God and man together.

What need did God have to humble himself and become man? At the heart of kenosis or self-emptying lies humility. It is a self-less act and opens the door to true Christian love. This love is not of the type of “butterflies in the stomach”. True Christian love is in its essence selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional.

As a matter of fact, humility precedes love: one must be humble in order to love. This is because humility demands for a person to empty his heart from his own self, in order to accommodate another person into his/her heart. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other…” (Matthew 6:24).

Christ’s humble example of self-emptying through his incarnation teaches us that we must empty ourselves from our own selves; only when we pour out the “I” that fills us from within ourselves, we create the space inside our hearts where another person can reside. This we learn from Christ’s selfless act of kenosis.

In a world where “me” or “I” are often prioritized, we notice little by little that the true essence of humility and self-emptying is fading away, especially during the Christmas season. Society has brewed a deceitful and insatiable need inside of our children who repeat “I can’t wait to open MY Christmas gifts.”

The time of Christmas is no longer about how we will humbly empty ourselves, but rather what will we receive and how we can feel satisfied. People’s condescension is one of looking down on others with a feeling of superiority. Christ’s condescension is a salvific one.

As Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. once eloquently put it, “never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” By looking at what this glorious celebration has turned into, it is no longer apparent what the true meaning of Christmas is all about: the selfless act of self-emptying through the incarnation of Christ, who humbled himself in order to take the form of a human.

During the Christmas season, our Church teaches us to put Christ back into Christmas, not by merely exclaiming “merry Christmas,” but by putting Christ back into our hearts.

This must begin with each one of us. It can only take place through self-emptying.

The Church encourages people to serve the needy, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and the suffering, and pray for those who are lost. Through these and many more actions of faith, we ensure that we place Christ back into Christmas instead of putting and retaining inside ourselves our own personal desires and wants.

Finally, we must never confuse humility with humiliation. Humility is not the losing of one’s dignity. On the contrary, humility empowers you; it emboldens you. Humility allows you to speak what is right without fear. Nothing can ever go wrong when you are humble. When Christ was slapped by his accusers in the Sanhedrin, he humbly asked them “why do you strike me?” (John 18:23).

Let us not remove the person whom this season is named after. Let us follow his humble example of self-emptying through his incarnation. Let us empty ourselves once and for all from all the demands, stress, anxiety, obligations, desires, injustices, and sometimes bitterness that fill our interiors.

Only then will we allow Christ to be born in the humble and warm manger of our hearts. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

May you all enjoy of a joyous, blessed, and humble Christmas.

Reverend Father Joseph Hector Abouid – St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church